Clarity and confusion in the Middle East

Learning tour allows young people to learn about Israeli-Palestinian conflict

October 8, 2014 | Young Voices | Volume 18 Number 20
Seth Ratzlaff | Special to Young Voices
Hearing the stories of both Israelis and Palestinians was a highlight of the Middle East learning tour Seth Ratzlaff participated in two years ago. (Photo by Seth Ratzlaff)

It’s easy to get fed up with talking about things while studying in college or university; the desire to do something hands-on can be overwhelming. When my religious studies professor told me about a three-week learning tour of Israel and Palestine called Yella, organized, by Mennonite Central Committee Ontario and Mennonite Church Eastern Canada, I didn’t hesitate to sign up.

Honestly, I did not know much about the politics of that region before going there in 2012. I did, however, have a smattering of confused knowledge from the news. I also knew that the conflict in the Middle East stems back to biblical times. Desire to gain knowledge, grow in my faith and escape from the stagnation of student life compelled me to go.

Yella delivered plenty of adventure. Paradoxically, it also brought both clarity and confusion to my faith.

For one thing, Scripture is now much more approachable. I can imagine the geography, the mountains and Galilee, the olive trees, the threshing of barley and the scattering of seeds. I have a better understanding of the political context in which Jesus was embedded: the villages under the watchful eye of Rome and Jesus’ delicate political manoeuvring.

I now find interesting nuances in the Bible. For example, we visited Caesarea, a city on the coast of the Mediterranean, which includes the structural remains of Herod’s palace, an elaborate and indulgent building, judging from its foundation, which was curiously enough built on the sand. Who was that fool who built his house on the sand?

But one step behind insight is confusion. The political climate of Israel-Palestine is complex and the resultant suffering is incomprehensible, potentially faith-shattering. Yella provided an overview of the religious heritage of the Holy Land, but it also put me face to face with the modern crisis, which is by and large a continuation of the one Jesus dealt with.

We listened to an Israeli family tell the story of their daughter’s 16th birthday party, when she was killed by a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv. We heard from a Palestinian farmer, whose land has been slowly annexed by Jewish settlers, and who must regularly endure their relentless harassment; his olive grove—a crop that only begins to yield after eight to 10 years—had recently been torched.

What I appreciated about Yella is that I did not have to work through these experiences alone. The group I travelled with was made up primarily of young adults as well as guides with some expertise regarding Christianity and Israel-Palestine. For many of us, the stories and people we encountered were entirely new and so we naturally felt similar emotions. Thankfully, there was plenty of time to debrief, ask the questions we weren’t courageous enough to ask in the moment, and share our frustrations and our empathy.

I came back to Canada much more grateful for its security and peace. I would love to go back though. Whenever I eat pita with zatar (a spice mixture), or drink Arabic coffee, I am teleported back to that terrible, beautiful land. I would love to experience the hospitality and gorgeous geography once again.

Whether you are an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian situation or apathetic towards the matter, you should know that Yella is happening again in May 2015. Visit for more information or to register by Oct. 31, 2014.

Seth Ratzlaff, 23, lives in Kitchener, Ont., where he attends Rockway Mennonite Church. He is a member of the planning committee for Yella 2015.

See other stories about the Yella tour experience:
Beholding the grey area 
Marching to Zion 
Swords and ploughshares 
‘Let’s go’ to an amazing place 

Hearing the stories of both Israelis and Palestinians was a highlight of the Middle East learning tour Seth Ratzlaff participated in two years ago. (Photo by Seth Ratzlaff)

Yella participants walk through Palestine during a 2012 learning tour. (Photo by Seth Ratzlaff)

Seth Ratzlaff

Seth Ratzlaff was part of a group of young adults who travelled to the Middle East in 2012 for a three-week Israeli-Palestinian learning tour. ‘I would love to go back,’ Ratzlaff writes. (Photo courtesy of Seth Ratzlaff)

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